Inside the mind of the anonymous online poster
These users comment on everything from today’s news to hotel rooms. Many are harmless. But some are ruthless. Who are they exactly, and why do they do what they do?
On Monday, May 17, at 2 p.m., a breaking news article headlined “Obama’s aunt given OK to stay in United States” hits the home page of Boston.com. In a matter of seconds, the first anonymous online comment appears. A reader with the handle of Peregrinite writes, “of course she can . . . can someone appeal.”
Certain topics never fail to generate a flood of impassioned reactions online: immigration, President Obama, federal taxes, “birthers,” and race. This story about Obama’s Kenyan aunt, who had been exposed as an illegal immigrant living in public housing in Boston and who was now seeking asylum, manages to pull strands from all five of those contentious subjects.
In the next few minutes, several equally innocuous posts follow, including a rare comment in favor of the judge’s decision. Then the name-calling begins. At 2:03 p.m., a commenter with the pseudonym of Craptulous calls the aunt, Zeituni Onyango, a “foreign free-loader.” Seconds later comes the lament from Redzone 300: “Just another reason to hate are [sic] corrupt government.”
News websites from across the country struggle to maintain civility in their online comments forums. But given their anonymous nature and anything-goes ethos, these forums can sometimes feel as ungovernable as the tribal lands of Pakistan.
At Boston.com, the website of The Boston Globe, a team of moderators – or “mods” – monitor the comments. Actually, with just one or two mods on per shift, and an average of more than 6,000 comments posted every day, on every corner of the site, the mods could never hope to monitor all the simultaneous chatter. Instead, they focus on evaluating the “abuse reports” that commenters file against one another. For Steve Morgan, a veteran editor who coordinates the monitoring, the color of trouble is red. The crimson message at the top of his computer screen keeps a running total of the abuse reports that are awaiting action. Some complaints don’t ultimately turn up abuse – coarse language, ad hominem attacks, and the like – but rather just a political stance that the person doing the complaining doesn’t care for. So a mod needs to evaluate each complaint and decide either to remove the comment or let it stand.
Over the next two hours, the comments about Obama’s aunt keep flying, the abuse reports continue to climb, and the mods scramble to remove the many posts – both conservative and liberal – that they determine have crossed the line. Some comments are enlightening, on both sides of the issue. (Madriver1 offers statistics showing that, of nearly 40,000 asylum requests filed last year, more than one-quarter were granted.) Some are unintentionally funny. (GLOBEREADER83 chastises another commenter for having written “good grammar” instead of “proper grammar,” but in both cases misspells it as grammer.) And many are not just mean, but make-you-want-to-shower nasty. There are references to Muslim bombers, Somalian pirates, “teabaggers and xenophobes,” America becoming “a 3rd world socialist hellhole,” and crude comparisons between Aunt Zeituni and James Brown, and between the first family and farm animals.
At 3:41 p.m., when the commentary has degenerated into all-out combat, hummlarry writes, “Obama is Kenyan and he is illegal and president. We have been invaded by non-americans and the liberals are to blame. I hope that one of the liberals feels the pain by being broken into by a needy illegal and then maybe they will get it. Deport them all.”
Not long after that, Boston.com staffers take the drastic and relatively rare step of turning off the comments function on that particular article. (For certain types of stories, such as those involving personal tragedies, the comments section is turned off from the start.) Poof – hundreds of comments about Obama’s aunt disappear.
Too many abuse reports had been pouring in; by day’s end, the total number would be 1,330 – twice the daily average for the previous month. More than that, the commentary had reached its tipping point. The pros of hosting a robust, freewheeling conversation had become outweighed by the cons of all the venom and nastiness, by people who are allowed to name-call without any obligation to reveal their own names.
* * * * * * * * *
The raging commentary on Obama’s aunt is a microcosm of the thorny problem many websites are grappling with right now over what to do with anonymous comments. At many of these sites, executives have begun to ask themselves: How did we get into this thicket, and is there a sensible way out? But a more basic question needs to be answered first: Who are these people who spend so much of their days posting anonymous comments, and what is motivating them?
Newspapers find themselves in a strange position. People wanting to have a letter to the editor printed in the paper have long been required to provide their name, address, and a daytime phone number. Yet on the websites owned by these same newspapers, all it usually takes to be handed a perpetual soapbox is an active e-mail address.
After years of letting anonymity rule online, many media heavyweights, from The Washington Post to The Huffington Post, have begun to modify their policies. The goal is to take the playground back from anonymous bullies and give greater weight to those willing to offer, in addition to strong views, their real names.
Others, like The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, are probably wishing they’d taken that step earlier. In March, the paper outed a local judge for allegedly posting comments on Cleveland.com under the handle lawmiss that included critical commentary on cases and individuals appearing before her in court. The judge denied authorship and is now suing the paper and its affiliated companies for $50 million. Her denials might seem a smidge south of persuasive, and The Plain Dealer may well have been journalistically suspect had it not gone public with the information once it discovered it. But the judge has a valid point about her expectations of anonymity.
In another suit, a Louisiana public official sued 11 anonymous posters last month for comments on The Times-Picayune website that he said were malicious and untruthful. (He didn’t sue the website – under federal law, sites are generally not legally responsible for defamatory postings by readers – but rather asked that it disclose the commenters’ names. He later dropped the suit.) No matter who you believe in each of these cases, it’s a haunted house that anonymity built.
Anonymous commentary is a push and pull between privacy and trust, and the implications extend beyond news sites to include Web reviews for everything from books to technology to hotel rooms. Online postings can sway political opinion and heavily influence whether products or businesses thrive or fail. They can make or break reputations and livelihoods. On one side, anonymous comments give users the freedom to be completely candid in a public forum. On the other, that freedom can be abused and manipulated to spread lies or mask hidden agendas. With all that in the balance, the thinking goes, shouldn’t we know who’s saying these things?
Clearly, anonymity is under attack. Even the Chinese government has had enough, announcing last month it would begin a push to end unnamed online comments. And, really, there’s not much that officials in Beijing don’t already know about who’s saying what within their borders.
Still, the nameless nature of the Web is so embedded in the culture that it will be hard to change the rules now. And as newspaper websites struggle to maintain their central role hosting the community conversation and work to increase the time users spend on their sites, scrapping anonymity isn’t such a clear-cut call.
I’ve always loved finding the hidden gems in online comments – the surprising slice of data that makes me question one of my political assumptions, the pithy one-liner that makes me laugh out loud. But those gems seem increasingly rare amid all the yelling and hollow rage and predictable talking points.
If we hope to clean up the online conversation, we need a better understanding of the select group of people doing most of the talking. Studies have shown that participation rates in online social communities tend to follow something called the “90-9-1” rule. About 90 percent of the people are “lurkers,” that is, watching but not actively contributing; 9 percent are infrequent contributors; and 1 percent are, to borrow a term from the fast-food industry, the heavy users.
McDonald’s and Burger King have teams of researchers who do nothing but try to understand the patterns, desires, and quirks of their heavy users, their best customers. However, yet another unfortunate byproduct of anonymity is that news sites know precious little about their most active commenters.
* * * * * * * * *
Stanley Talabach is a man of routine. He wakes up at 5 every morning and by 6 has made his way down to the dark kitchen of his North Attleborough town house. He consumes a breakfast consisting of a cocktail of Mountain Dew and orange juice, a multivitamin, 25 milligrams of diuretic (for mild hypertension), an adult dose of baby aspirin, folic acid, and a banana.
He then logs on to the desktop computer that functions as the centerpiece of his kitchen table, and goes to three different sites – Boston.com, BostonHerald.com, and MSN.com – to check his horoscope. That the three seldom agree on how a Pisces like him will fare that day has done little to dampen his enthusiasm for the astral arts. If the Boston.com horoscope offers five stars, it puts an extra spring in his step.
Talabach knows housekeeping is not one of his strengths, but as a twice-divorced, semi-retired 66-year-old credit analyst who lives alone, he doesn’t feel the need to impress anyone. He assures me the walls and the blinds on the kitchen slider were once white, but I see no evidence of their ever having been anything other than a brownish yellow. “That’s thanks to these,” he says, holding up a pack of Berkley unfiltered cigarettes. Next to his computer he keeps a blue ashtray that is more like a small urn.
After the horoscopes, Talabach turns to the articles posted on Boston.com and makes his daily transformation, from Stanley to Xenophonic.
Let’s clear this up right now: It’s not Xenophobic, but Xenophonic, a common mistake, especially by those reading his comments on immigration, one of his favorite topics. Although he is an unenrolled voter, he is a proud conservative, and there are few issues that get him more worked up than illegal immigration. A couple come close: unions, affirmative action, and anything having to do with Ted Kennedy.
“I don’t care where you came from to come here ILLEGALLY, GO BACK!” he wrote last month in a comment attached to an article about Governor Deval Patrick blasting Arizona’s new immigration law. “Did we all see where some wise guy students in California took down the American flag, hoisted the MEXICAN flag and put the American flag beneath it . . . UPSIDE DOWN? Ahnold should have sent in the National Guard to remove the Mexican Flag and rehoist the American flag.”
Although some liberal commenters accuse him of being xenophobic, Talabach says he has no quarrel with outsiders. His father emigrated from Albania, a detail of his biography he often invokes in his posts on immigration, as he did in the closing to his comment about the Mexican flag: “FYI son of an immigrant that came here LEGALLY.”
His political views have been shaped unmistakably by his life experience. Knowing that his father followed the rules to come to the States, worked hard every day of his life, and served eight years in the US Army, Talabach is offended when he perceives new immigrants looking for shortcuts. Recalling that he himself made $1.90 an hour at his first job, but he got to take home 85 percent of his pay, Talabach is on guard against any sniff of wasteful spending by a federal and state government that combine to “relieve me of 26, 27, 28 percent of my pay.” Feeling he was passed over for promotions during the 1970s and ’80s in favor of female and minority candidates he saw as less qualified, he loathes “first” articles, like those touting the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice. “Why do we need to keep score?” he’ll thunder.
He posts most of his comments in the morning, before heading to work in Mansfield. Ever since he decided to semi-retire about three years ago, his schedule has been 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., though he usually shows up at work at 7:10 a.m., taking the extra time to read the paper. He’s been at his current job for 11 years and says that for at least nine of them, he never missed a single day of work.
Other than the occasional conversation with his boss, almost all of his political discussions take place in the form of online comments.
When he gets home, he’ll look to see how other commenters have responded to his earlier posts. There’s a “Recommend” button on the comments page on Boston.com, where people can give their thumbs up to posted comments. This is the metric by which Talabach judges his daily performance. He recalls the time his comment on a column titled “My Lazy American Students” drew hundreds of “Recommends.” Leaning back in his chair, with his left arm resting on his thick belly and his right arm jingling change in his pocket, he smiles. “There were more than 600 comments, and at least half of them agreed with me!”
I ask him if he has any hobbies. He points to a large wall hanging behind him. “I made this rug,” he says, before adding, “I made those two clocks,” and pointing to a pair nearby. “They came in a kit.” I ask him if he has a workshop in the house. He shakes his head. “No, I made all of these things when I was living at my old house in Foxborough.” Then it dawns on me. He told me earlier that he’d been living in his current place for more than a decade. So much for current hobbies.
He has no wife, no children, and a job requiring just 20 hours a week. He doesn’t follow sports, doesn’t hang out at bars or go on many trips beyond the occasional visit to play the slots at Twin River, and isn’t involved in any organizations to speak of. But he is extremely active in his community. It just happens to be one that only exists online.
Despite his strong views, he is generally a responsible member of that community. Every once in a while he’ll find one of his comments on Boston.com has been removed because he went too far. (It’s a safe bet it involved Teddy K.) Occasionally, he’ll commit the common commenter sin of weighing in on an article without having read it, and be called on it when his objection turns out to have been covered in the fifth paragraph.
But, overall, he plays by the rules, works hard at this commenter job of his, and, in a way, serves his community. After reading his posts and spending time with him, I believe him when he tells me that, even though he’s anonymous online, he would never write anything that he wouldn’t say “mano a mano.” That, incidentally, strikes me as a pretty good standard for separating the stand-up commenters from the cowardly name-callers.
One more thing about this anonymous heavy user named Xenophonic. He’s never been all that anonymous. The full name his parents gave him at his christening is the same one his father was given back in Albania: Xenophon Stanley Talabach.
* * * * * * * * *
I reached out to dozens of Boston.com heavy users like Xenophonic. Actually, to protect the privacy of users, I wasn’t handed their e-mail addresses. Instead, I gave a list of the commenters with whom I wanted to speak to Boston.com's director of user engagement, Teresa Hanafin, who then e-mailed the commenters directly, telling them they could contact me if they wanted to be interviewed. (I chose to focus on Boston.com users for obvious reasons: It’s got the biggest regional reach and it’s where I could hope to get the most complete picture of online users.) My list included a wide range of posters: conservatives and liberals, people who comment on articles and people who spend their time on the themed message boards, the reasonable types and the all-caps troublemakers. I made it clear that I wouldn’t reveal anyone’s identity without their permission.
Those willing to talk included people on the left and the right, males and females, people passionate about sports and people passionate about politics and people passionate about passion (the Love Letters crowd). Somewhat surprisingly, many had no problem with my using their real names in the article, though a few offered some understandable reasons why they didn’t want to be identified.
But here are the people I didn’t hear back from: the screamers, troublemakers, and trolls (Internet slang for people behind inflammatory posts). Not a single one. The loudest, most aggressive voices grew mum when asked to explain themselves, to engage in an actual discussion. The trolls appear to prize their anonymity more than anyone else.
Michael Sol Pollens is not a troll, but he is a heavy user. He explains that he spent three decades as a private detective, focusing mostly on fraud investigations, before suffering a nervous breakdown. He turned in his detective’s license and began writing detective fiction. He quickly discovered that posting comments online could be a therapeutic way to kick off his early-morning writing schedule. “I get up at 4, fire up a little incense, fire up some rock music, and go at it,” says the 51-year-old.
Pollens posts on Boston.com, NYTimes.com, and elsewhere under the same pen name he uses for his fiction, KurtLarsen. When he worked as a PI, Pollens was careful not to have his photo taken, but he’s more relaxed about identity these days. (He recently got his detective’s license back.) When I interviewed him in the lilac study of the Malden home he shares with his wife, he had no hesitation about also being videotaped. Curiously, his only request was that he be allowed to wear his shades. He includes a link to his website, KurtLarsen.net, in his posts, and that website includes a reference to his real name.
Pollens, who peppers his sentences with a sometimes exhausting series of literary references, comments most frequently on stories about post-9/11 civil rights infringements and the Arab-Israeli conflict. (He is Jewish but is a tough critic of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians.) At his most productive, he posts up to four comments a day. He is every bit as liberal as Xenophonic is conservative, but the appeal for his participation is similar, and he is equally focused on his “Recommends” standing. “I do enjoy the community nature of this,” he says.
That community can morph in fascinating ways. In the comments section on articles about Arab-Israeli relations, Pollens found a poster named Shamu who was preaching from the same pulpit. “I like what you say,” Pollens wrote Shamu at one point, inviting Shamu to contact him offline. Shamu did. They’ve since become friends and have had dinner together several times.
Shamu, it turns out, is a therapist from the North Shore. Out of sensitivity to his clients, he tries to keep his political views private and asked me not to include his real name. He says that months of reading KurtLarsen posts had given him such insight into Pollens that by the time they met, there were few surprises. “I am amazed by how well you can know somebody through the Internet,” Shamu says. “When you actually meet, you’re just adding a face and body inflections.”
Then again, sometimes those impressions formed online can turn out to be off base. Yoshimi25 is one of the most faithful contributors to On the Front Burner, a
Yoshimi25 hasn’t lived in the Boston area for nearly two decades. Still, her heart beats for Boston. I met her and her 18-year-old daughter when they returned to the area from Ohio for a recent vacation. Both were wearing Red Sox championship T-shirts.
When I ask Yoshimi25 her age, she says, “Forty-three – exactly two months younger than Tim Wakefield.” A divorced freelance artist who uses finger quotes when referring to her “social life,” Yoshimi25 says, “I don’t have many close friends in Ohio.” Her friends on Boston.com fill that void. She feels she’s gotten to know quite a bit about her fellow heavy users. “I know LloydDobler has two kids, and they must be young, because he talks about putting them to bed at 8 o’clock,” she says. “I know jesseyeric is in a local band.”
Once when a troll attacked Yoshimi25, hurling ugly anti-Asian slurs at her, her friends on the boards rose to her defense. Most people assume Yoshimi25 is Asian. In fact, she is a blue-eyed Irish-American named Kelly. (She asked me not to use her last name, but agreed to be photographed for this article.) Her Eastern-sounding handle comes from her days practicing martial arts. Yoshimi25 says that because the Front Burner message board is such an intimate group, the regulars on it tend to behave well, even though they’re anonymous. “Although I can say anything I want without consequences,” she says, “you should behave as though there are consequences.”
* * * * * * * * *
That gets to the heart of the problem. The comments sections on many general-interest news sites lack both the carrot and the stick for encouraging responsible behavior. The carrot is the cohesion of a group you don’t want to disappoint, like Yoshimi25’s Front Burner community. The stick is the shame associated with having your real name publicly attached to embarrassing behavior. Without these two levers, the social contract breaks down.
Steve Yelvington knows this terrain as well as anyone. In the mid-1980s, he began hosting dial-up bulletin boards as a hobby. Most of the people on them used pseudonyms, but because it was a coherent group, the social contract remained strong. In 1994, he was the founding editor of the Star Tribune Online in Minneapolis (now Startribune.com), which Minnesota’s largest newspaper began as a pre-Web platform that required participants to provide not only their real names but also a credit card number. Yet with the arrival of the Web and the proliferation of online forums, anonymity began to take hold, fueled, in particular, by the way the early dominant service provider, America Online, gave each account the option for multiple screen names.
“As the conversational spaces get larger,” Yelvington says, “the bonds that tie people together get weaker.”
The 57-year-old Yelvington is now a new-media strategist working with Morris Publishing Group, whose holdings include 13 daily papers from Florida to Alaska. His goal is to clean up the playground of online comments while preserving some measure of anonymity, so that, say, a closeted gay student would still feel comfortable posting a comment about the climate at his high school. To strike this balance, Yelvington is pushing Morris sites to insist on collecting (but not publishing) real names and street addresses for everyone who comments, yet allow users to continue to post under pseudonyms. “That gives us a reasonably powerful tool for detecting troublemakers,” he says. “Most of the troublemakers tend to lie about their name and address, but they lie poorly.”
Still, that approach would have done nothing to prevent the mess that the The Plain Dealer found itself in with the judge and lawmiss’s comments. To avoid minefields like that, Howard Owens, a former digital executive at Gatehouse Media, insists on real names for anyone posting on TheBatavian.com, the news site he publishes in Batavia, New York.
Under Yelvington’s plan, Owens says, readers wouldn’t know if the JIMY23 posting a comment blasting the mayor is really the guy planning to challenge him in the next election. And if the managers of the news site figure that out, it puts them in an awful bind.
Owens insists that a no-anonymity rule is not just good journalism but good business as well. “My competitor allows anonymous comments,” he says. “We don’t. We get 10 times what they get. My users are more willing to engage in conversation, because they know who they are arguing with.” Almost all the heavy users I spoke with said they would continue to comment even if they had to provide their real name.
While news organizations debate scrapping anonymity, the ground may be shifting beneath them. With all of our identifying information getting sliced, diced, and sold, by everyone from credit card companies to Facebook, is there really such a thing as the anonymous Web anymore? Consider this demonstration from the late ’90s by Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor Latanya Sweeney. She took three commonly available data points: sex (male), ZIP code (02138), and date of birth (July 31, 1945). Those seemingly anonymous attributes could have described lots of people, right? Actually, no. She proved they could belong to just one person: former governor William Weld. She tells me that 87 percent of Americans can now be identified with just these three data points.
Maybe the best approach to getting people to behave better online is just reminding them how easy it is to figure out who they really are.
Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.